Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Explaining Yourself

Isn't it funny. The reason that we humans are where we are today, in terms of our position of power on this planet, is due to our ability to talk to one another. Opposable thumbs help too, of course, but there's no escaping that fact our ability to communicate is the main achievement.

Can you imagine any large construction, with no words being exchanged? The Tower of Babel story only goes to show that we already understood this long before modern technology. In fact we would probably struggle with making spears to throw if there was no language. We use it to pass on what we know.

But it isn't being able to say "Cut it 4" from the end at an angle of 60 degrees" that we are most proud of, is it? It's more the words of love and support and kindness. Poetic descriptions of beauty. The amazing power of diplomacy.

So, why is it we have such a hard time explaining ourselves?

Be honest. Have you ever been upset, that is to say frustrated about a situation or a person, to the point of tears or anger, and when asked what was wrong you couldn't find the words? I know I have. And I'm usually very good at this communication thing.

There are quite a few theories as to why we fail at communication.

Some of it is taught. If we come from a home where it's normal to keep your feelings to yourself we get no skills taught to us at the important learning years. So there are lots of child raising experts encouraging us to share our feelings with our children, and encouraging them to share theirs.

Some of us are naturally more open and willing to "speak our minds".

Sometimes we need time to actually process in our own heads what the problem is to begin with. Why is this bothering me so much, why am I angry? Therapy is a multi billion dollar industry.

It doesn't help, obviously, if the person we need to express ourselves to is dismissive, so this can be a two-way street.

Then there are cultural expectations. There's that whole thing about the English stiff upper lip, for example. In recent years it seems to be less of an expectation there, with tell-all celebrities leading the way, but many parts of the world there is still this vague idea of stalwart patriarchy never letting their emotions show. Even the Japanese are more open, but they've got a long way to go.

It doesn't do us any good to keep things "bottled up",we've been told,  and some people have taken it to the other extreme, sharing their most private thoughts all over social media. Has THAT level of emotional puking made us understand one another better?


WTF, seriously is wrong with us? We have the power of fluent language, but we remain frustrated.

I'm going to tell you a little anecdote, because as a person with a long and happy marriage it may just help.

I like to do needlecrafts of an evening, otherwise I'd just work all the time. I can't sit passively, I have to have something to DO. Martin likes to chill out by watching a movie. We don't have a TV service, but we do have an excellent DVD collection. In theory I could sit with him, and do my own thing. I could knit a hat while sort of watching the movie, as it were.

BUT. He likes to sit in the dark to watch his movie, as you would in the movie theatre. So, I can't see to do craft stuff, and I wander off. I end up coming back in here, working.

It's fine in summer, light evenings and all that, but this winter we've pretty much led separate lives in the evening, him in the dark living room, and me in my office.

I experimented with angled desk lamps, but they didn't quite work, he'd be getting a bright light in the corner of his vision, and I was actually getting dazzled. From one extreme to the other. However, the regular lamp on the table didn't cast enough light for anything intricate or dark.

And here's the thing, I am not one of those people who insists everything be done my way. Plenty do. Plenty of women would just insist on having the light on, and too bad. That's not who I am. Our marriage is based on equality, fairness, and compromise, not demands. That's how you survive 34 years together.

Except......the situation was pissing me off. I was resenting my lack of options. I tried really hard to just let it go, but I was getting very frustrated.

One evening recently I was crocheting until the sun went down, and when I couldn't get enough light from the table lamp, I stormed off in here, muttered a few expletives, and sat crocheting in my office chair. Martin thought I was mad at him.

So when I was reassuring him, next day, that I really wasn't, that I was just frustrated at the situation, it occurred to me that if he can misunderstand my feelings after all the time we've been together, and how well we know each other, how the hell can anyone else ever intuit each others needs?

Seriously, if Marin & Melanie Boxall can have a misunderstanding, then anyone can.

And we do. It's not even rare. It's almost always over something stupid too, because we are both well-trained in discussing the important things well. It's the silly little things that are the always the problem.

And honestly it can be fixed, but we don't bother, do we? We aren't too worried if we have a misunderstanding over a small thing.

And yet...we could use it as practice. We could remember what we were taught about saying "When X happens I feel Y because Z". In these situations we don't actually have any difficulty explaining it.

"When you walk across my clean floor in your dirty work boots I feel frustrated because I just cleaned it and now I've got to do it again"

We can even offer an immediate solution. Even a CHOICE.

"Please leave your boots outside, or buy a boot tray for just inside the door"

This is simple stuff, but by approaching it in this way, by explaining the situation rather than just shouting accusations, we practice our communication skills.

THEN...when something more complex or important comes along, hopefully we simply follow the same steps.

But we don't, do we?

Frustration short-circuits our rational, memorized strategies.

I have been a sounding board as long as I can remember. People seem to come to me for help with relationship issues. I appreciate that, as I do believe that successful people offer the best advice. I get exasperated at those who seek advice from those who relationships have failed! One thing that I hear over and over again is:

"He does X and it really bugs me."

And when I ask "What did he say when you told him that?"

I get told "I haven't told him."

In fact if I had a penny for every time I've asked "And what did/he she say when you told him/her?" about just about ANYTHING, only to be told "I haven't told him/her" then I'd be very wealthy indeed.

Why? Why? Why?

Why are we so bad at this?

What can I do? Well, I can't make people open up, any more than I can make them listen. All I can do is try to be better at both myself. Teach by example. That sort of thing. No matter how much I fail, no matter how many times I speak and don't get heard, if I don't speak at all nothing will be achieved. And I must listen well too. That's all I can do.

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